Reiek

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I was the first to arrive at the Bungkawn taxi stand where sumos to Reiek departed. As is the protocol, I was given the window seat in the front which delighted me immensely. But this happiness would be fleeting because as soon as I opened the door to occupy my rightful place, the driver snarled at me and pointed at the seats behind. I showed him the receipt. He shook his head. I said I didn’t understand, stubbornly emphasising that I would like to sit where I had been assigned.

He sighed agitatedly and said, “You know Mizo?”

I said, “No.”

“This seat for Mizo. We like to talk. So go sit at the back.”

Something in the tone of his voice suggested it was perhaps not a bright idea to protest further. So I went behind and sat where I was ordered to sit, which was in the middle of two men who smelt like they’d been drinking since morning.

Reiek was located on the mountain ridge bang opposite to Aizawl and was clearly visible from some of the higher elevations in the city but as is typically the case with mountain roads, it took over an hour to get there. The road undulated down to a bridge where the driver and some of his companions stopped for a break as if the 30 minute ride down to the valley had utterly exhausted their reserves.

Having had their fill of some local snacks and moonshine, we climbed up for another half an hour and voila, we were in the village of Reiek. When we reached the turnoff to the Tourist lodge, the driver yelled at me to get off. I thought he was being rude because he didn’t like my face or something. But then, gentle mocking laughter went around at my expense as the sumo zoomed away. For a moment, I empathised with Rajesh and wondered if his xenophobia was justified. But I brushed that thought away since impolite behaviour had no ethnicity and you could encounter it wherever you went.

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The city of Aizawl from the viewing platform in the village

The Tourist Lodge in Reiek was located up a steep road above the village. With my swollen rucksack, it was a heavy climb with no end in sight. The road was deserted and the only people I saw on the way were construction workers from Bihar building a house on a slope by the roadside and kids running around a garden area near a viewing platform. The village proper appeared to be clustered on the lower slopes and the higher I went, the more vacant the place became. Finally, on top of a spur, nestled in a forested grove, were the group of cottages that I had been looking for.

“How long are you staying?”, asked the woman at the reception.

“3 days”, I said.

“3 days?? You’re the only person here for 3 days”, she said, with genuine puzzlement.

I told her I was surprised to hear that because everyone I had spoken to had vouched for its status as the most touristy place in Mizoram. Moreover, I was there on a weekend and I had been scared that the lodge would be packed to the gills with people.

Many tourists came to Reiek, she said, but they returned home once they’d climbed the hill and seen the views. Aizawl was too close by and there was nothing else to do around the place. I was crazy to waste 3 days here.

But I didn’t mind being alone in a setting like Reiek. There was no network on my phone and if I walked a few meters beyond the lodge, all I saw was sheer darkness and all I heard was the creaky sounds of the forest. It was pure disconnection and I looked forward to 3 days of peace and quiet away from the stresses of social media and the internet. My cottage was basic and was furnished, like all Mizoram Tourist lodges, with a clean bed, ample blankets, a functioning bathroom equipped with a geyser and western commode. It was rustic yet comfortable.

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I was hungry owing to the exhaustions of the trip here. So I hit the restaurant near the reception to see what they served. Since they hadn’t been expecting any guests, no food had been prepared. The best meal they could rustle up on day one was chowmein. While I was eating, my idyll was disturbed by a snooty, bearded Indian man accompanied by a sulky woman. Both were originally from Delhi and had come from Aizawl on a day trip to the Reiek mountain. The man was a braggart who had once worked as a government official in Aizawl and was trying all he could to impress the woman by boasting about his time in Mizoram. In his narrative, inaccurate facts blended seamlessly with snap judgements to give a patronising, uncharitable view of the people whom he characterised as too pious, curt and boring. He whined incessantly about how there wasn’t anything to do here and how the mountains here were so underwhelming compared to the Himalayas closer to Delhi.  The woman, who had to make frequent trips to Mizoram on account of her work, had complaints of her own. She complained of the challenges of dealing with the food, the cold weather, the lack of infrastructure, the language, the people and moaned about how even the dogs were nasty and why she wasn’t surprised that the people here ate them. I was fervently hoping for someone to take offence and knock some sense into them.

In the evening, workers who were constructing a Children’s Park nearby took over the restaurant area. This group was more amiable than the grumpy Delhiites. They washed the hard labours of the day by lounging on the sofa, watching Hindi serials and old Hindi movies on TV. I also got to meet the cook/caretaker, who had been missing when I arrived. He was a flamboyant guy who cheerfully cooked meals and made merry with whoever was staying there. He appeared to have struck quite a rapport with the labourers because they hung out in the kitchen when they weren’t watching TV and treated the place like it was their home.

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I made the hike up to the Reiek peak the next afternoon. It was a Saturday and the trail was full of day-trippers from Aizawl. It was a clearly marked stony path that gently ascended past dense forest singing with crickets and a long, gloomy cave to the head of a cliff. The views from here were beautiful and looking at the sheer vertical staircase ascending above me to the Reiek peak, I was half-tempted to call it quits and go back to the lodge.

But when a group of young kids raced past and began chucking at my indecision, I pulled myself together and swore to make it to the top come what may. It was a vertigo-inducing climb punctuated by flattish sections where the Mizo Tourism people had thoughtfully provided benches for exhausted trekkers to break the hike and take in the sweeping views. The young kids who’d mocked me earlier now wanted me to take their pictures while balancing themselves on the perilous slopes. I dutifully obliged though a mere look down the hills made my head dizzy and my palms sweaty as I began to worry about how I was going to clamber down all alone without a dozen panic attacks.

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From the top of the hill, there were sweeping views down to the vertiginous Mizo range. A slender river slithered down far below, the evening light filtering through the hills making it glow silver. A group of more Mizo boys and girls had camped on the view tower. They offered me a drink which I gladly accepted. It was a perfect place to get light-headed. One of the girls who was more inquisitive and chattier than the others told me this was the first time any of them had come here. She found it amazing that someone who lived over 2500 kms away had made it to the spot the same day as herself who lived just across the hill. Another boy in the group came over to make conversation as the sun went down way in the distance. This was the synthesis I always hoped to experience, sitting in a beautiful place with people who belong to the landscape, making a connection.

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Yelagiri – The lake and the landscapes

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I walked around the periphery of the Yelagiri lake on a Wednesday afternoon when its surroundings were pleasantly free of any touristic activity. A stray family or two were paddling in its waters and the only people around were the people who lived and worked in the town. The place had an air of lethargy about it and I half felt like taking a cue from the people running the canteen and slumbering on the bird-shit stained benches lying about.

Part of the periphery of the lake was embellished with a walking track of sorts. A little ahead was a bridge where I idled for a while watching kingfishers leap into the waters for a meal. Also fishing for a lunch by a cabin near one end of the bridge were two fishermen whom I managed to distract from their routines by pointing a camera in their direction. They signalled me over to sit by their side to watch them fish and take their pictures. When I began talking to them, they indicated with their hands that they were mute. So I sat silently watching them fish. Their technique was crude with a long line of string and a bait at the end of it. But judging by the catch they had accumulated, it must be highly effective.

Further down the trail, I came by a small straw-roofed shack where the woman running it was on the verge of packing up. I asked for a cup of tea which the woman gleefully made. I was her only customer for the entire day, she said sorrowfully. It was only on the weekends that she made any money but since it was her only means of livelihood, she lugged her shop all the way here every day. A sombre-looking man was watching our conversation from the sidelines and when the woman went away, I tried engaging him in conversation. But he began pestering me for money and I scooted away as quickly as I could.

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One of the more adventurous things to do in the Yelagiris is to take a rickshaw to the village of Mangalam and climb Swami Malai, the holy mountain that’s also the highest peak in the area. I read a few blogs which claimed this place offered panoramic views of the entire region. I wasn’t witness to these legendary views because I was a cheapskate. I went alone without a guide and had to abort the climb halfway after two snarling dogs blocked my way. Back in Hotel Aruvi, the manager looked at my depressive shell pitifully and offered to escort me to a point which he insisted had the best views this side of Swami Malai.

So we rode on his bike, stopped at the Tourist Information Center and crossed what looked to be a broken fence wall to enter a dense forest area. The climb was gentle over a rocky terrain punctuated with rocky shrubs. When we reached the top, the sweeping views down to the plains made me swoon. The manager beckoned me to a ledge at the edge of the precipice. I have vertigo and avoid all edges as a rule but he pulled me over and made me sit on a rocky shelf.

From the ledge, one could see all the way from Jolarpettai on the left to the larger town of Vaniyambadi flickering in the haze on the right.  In the deep distance in front of us, we saw the Andhra Pradesh border bisected by the Kothur Hills with their misshaped heads and abstract outlines. Sunset was a couple of hours away and I told the manager that I could be done with my pictures and make a move in case he wants to get back to work. But he was insistent that I stay until the sun goes down.

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While I was clicking a ton of pictures from the precipitous ledge, I tried to learn more about the manager and where he came from. He wasn’t from the Yelagiris, he said, but from a village much further south. He came here a few years ago with his friends for a holiday. While they were having fun, he got to speak with the owner of the property.  The owner offered him a job and he never left. With time, the owner became so comfortable with his work that he let the manager handle everything from bookings to housekeeping. His mother too lived in the property now and whenever he had to take guests like myself on an excursion, she took care of the people who arrived in his absence.

I couldn’t converse with him for too long because he was bombarded with phone calls from people looking for rooms on the weekend. Soon, he climbed a spur to sit and answer the barrage of calls in peace. Judging by his side of the conversations, everyone appeared to want a cheaper deal than the already ridiculously inexpensive rates the Hotel was offering. I admired the calm resilience with which he dealt with these requests.

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I sat quietly by the ledge the rest of time. Having taken exponentially more shots than I needed earlier, all there was left to do was to sit quietly, stare at the hills in the distance and wait for the sunset hour. My attention was momentarily distracted by a gecko which peeked out of the rocks. It slid, jumped, tumbled between the holes and crevices of the terrain. I watched it lash its elastic tongue and catch a fly out of thin air. It must have been a satisfying meal because it disappeared back into the cracks in the rocks after this bit of action, presumably back home.

Sunset was quite spectacular. All the haze in the distance meant the sun turned orange long before it hit the horizon while the hills and the plains turned bluer and murkier. As the manager and I were enjoying this spectacle, we heard noises behind us. A group of two boys and two girls came huffing and hurrying up the rocks. “See? I told you. It’s beautiful, right?”, yelled one of the boys as soon as they made it to the ledge. “Wow”, screamed the girls, “this is amazing.” They were from Bangalore, I learnt in a minute’s small talk, and it was a long weekend owing to an Id holiday. Since the serenity of the moment had been well and truly destroyed and I’d had my fill of peace and quiet, I climbed down and let them have the ledge to themselves.

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The next morning, when I was checking out, I realised I hadn’t paid the manager anything to guide me up to the viewpoint. I quit my budget traveller mode and whipped out a couple of hundred rupee notes as a tip. But the manager refused to take it. I was a friend, he said, and the next time I visited, he would happily escort me to Swamimalai.

Beyond alluring places and landscapes, it reminded me why I still traveled over 9 years on. Being on the road makes you less cynical and believe genuine goodness and humanity still thrived in the world.

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Yelagiri – Getting there, the Streets and the People

Yelagiri, about 90 kms south of Vellore, is an unassuming cluster of villages at an altitude of over a 1,100 meters providing welcome respite from the heat to people living in the scorching plains around. It’s the closest thing to a hill station around Chennai and the hotels and restaurants, I heard, are packed to droves with people on holidays and weekends.

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I took a train from Chennai to Jolarpettai, a town about 13 kms from Yelagiri. Here, at a junction on the highway, I had to wait for hours for a Yelagiri bus to come by, hours that felt like an eternity in the bright summer heat. Rickshaw drivers saw my unhappy face staring cluelessly in the distance and asked if I wanted to go with them for 500 Rs. But I was playing in extreme budget travel mode and absurdly controlled my urge to take the easy way out. Matters were made considerably worse by the fact that, when one of the buses did arrive, I had been taking a respite from the heat in the shade of a tea stall and before I could leap over to where the bus was, it had bolted away. After this fiasco, the rickshaw guys appeared even more willing to give me a ride but my resolve had only toughened. After pointlessly wasting another hour by the roadside, this time not moving an inch, eventually I found myself in a tottering bus on the winding road to Yelagiri.

Since I went on a Tuesday and left before the alleged crowds hit on Friday, I wasn’t witness to the spectacle of mass tourism I had heard about. In fact, in my case, the opposite was true. Many of the restaurants were shut, the tourist sites felt forlorn and unloved and the hotels were vacant and lonely. It was difficult for me to imagine the place overrun with tourists because there was so little infrastructure to support such an influx. Nevertheless, I was assured by the amiable and moustachioed manager of my hotel that come the weekend, I would find it difficult to find a room no matter how much I was willing to pay.

My hotel was called Aruvi and appeared to be custom-built for cheerful families, complete with a garden, a play area with slides and swings and a big, gaudy sculpture of snow-white swans with yellow beaks perched on a bright-blue platform adorning the entrance. At 500 Rs. a night (thanks to fabulous discounts on goibibo), my room was a steal. It was impeccably clean, there was a western commode and a geyser for hot water. The manager apologetically informed me that they had shut down the in-house restaurant on weekdays because of a lack of clientele. If only I had arrived on a weekend…

Food, was a problem. The closest place open was 200 meters down the road and was filled with what appeared to be locals and people working in the area. Generally everyone eating here knew everyone else and as the protocol went, they had to stare suspiciously at the one person who didn’t belong. On the first night, the man I was sharing a table with proudly announced to everyone assembled that he had had a fight with his wife and was thrown out to fend for himself. The food was terrible and the only edible options were (extremely greasy) dosas and parotas accompanied by (extremely oily) omelettes. After two days of eating here, I wondered how I hadn’t collapsed with a heart attack.

When I told the manager how terrible my meals were, he suggested I walk down to Hotel Hills, a somewhat fancier dining place. The restaurant here was so desolate, two of the waiters had slumped over the table catching a siesta. Neither of them looked happy when they saw my hungry face staring expectantly around the room waiting for someone to get a menu. I waited patiently at my corner table until a more senior staff walked in and nudged one of the dozing waiters in my direction. They didn’t have any of the thalis or the South Indian dishes and only served the more expensive Punjabi food. Thankfully, it wasn’t entirely the catastrophe I thought it would be as (and I’m sure it had something to do with the terrible food I’d been eating) the vegetable korma was, if not delicious, certainly satisfying and the rotis to go with were soft enough without being chewy.

I spent my first day walking around Kottaiyur and Athanavoor, two of the main settlements in the area. There was an informal market at the junction of the two near the main entrance to the lake. Here street vendors selling colourful trinkets and fluffy, obscenely gaudy dolls sat glumly waiting for customers to show up, women laughed and gossiped by the fruit stalls selling locally grown guavas, pineapples and watermelons in front of the bright red and yellow striped temple walls, tourists tested their plastic gun skills by taking shots at balloons hung on a white cardboard wall and the pungent odor from a cluster of street food stalls that lay cluttered on the pavements selling fried fish fresh off the lake filled the air.

Here are some of the shots I took of the people I observed in the markets of Yelagiri –

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The monasteries, villages and wildernesses of Zanskar

(In 2012, a friend and I hired a horseman from the village of Darcha and trekked through the high pass of Shingo La into the villages of Zanskar. This is a continuation (and the conclusion) to the journey I began to recount in the previous post. The focus of these posts is to showcase the photography. I will do a more detailed report of the trip on a future post.)

The terrain below Shingo La was steep and punishing as we slipped and slid through vertiginous snowfields and mighty scree slopes to reach the campsite of Lakong. The lone granite peak of Gumbarunjon would be the defining feature of the spectacular wildernesses between Lakong and Kargiak as the Kargiak river photogenically wound through the arid technicolor moonscapes. 

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Although the goal of the trek was to spend as much time in the wilderness as possible, we couldn’t believe how relieved we were when we reached the stupas lining up the trail to the village of Kargiak and met its people at the trekkers cafe on the outskirts. The five days spent outside the realms of civilized society were beautiful but we were craving for genuine human warmth and conversation. The architecture here felt one with the landscape, whitewashed stone and wood houses set amidst green fields with the craggy mountains of Zanskar hanging above. 

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Beyond Kargiak, the trail passed through more villages and increasing human activity until we reach the campsite of Purne, the trailhead for the walk to the monastery of Phugtal. After you’ve walked through a landscape of sheer scree-ridden canyons, you cross a bridge, turn left and up there hanging in the sky on a sheer vertical cliff would be the Phugtal monastery. The first sight of this magnificent sanctuary is bound to impress even the most jaded eye. I spent 2 nights at the monastery guest house, a humble, spartan establishment, conversing with the monks and making repeated trips to the monastery above to have a closer look at the ancient murals and rituals at the monastery. It was a fitting end to what had a spectacular few days walking in the Zanskar mountains.

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The walk to Shingo La and the Zanskar landscapes

In July 2012, a fellow traveler and I employed a horseman from the village of Darcha in Lahaul and walked up to the village of Padum in Zanskar. I’ll recount the episode in more detail in future posts because it was an eventful, adventurous journey with emotional upheavals and strange encounters but the principal focus of this post (and the one after) would be the pictures I managed to capture of the landscapes and some of its people.

While there is a motorable road that swings by the trail today, in 2012, the only way to traverse the high pass of Shingo La and cross into Zanskar, perhaps the remotest corner of India, was to walk. The first 4 days leading up to the pass were a pure wilderness where the only signs of habitation were the ramshackle tea-tents put up at the campsites. The walk up was a brutal slog, with perilous stream crossings, precipitous scree slopes and the temptation to turn back and call off the hike to go back and chill in the comfy German Bakeries of Manali grew with every step, an urge we were glad we didn’t succumb to when we reached the pass.

Shingo la, at 5091 meters (16, 701 feet) was an airless wilderness, an amphitheater of sorts where one was surrounded by the peaks of the Great Himalayan Range on one side and the jagged spurs of the Zanskar mountains on the other. There was a dainty, partially frozen lake, shimmering blue and turquoise at the foot of the pass. It was a gloriously beautiful scene and we would have lingered far longer than we did if we weren’t gasping for air and didn’t have to walk 5 more hours down to the campsite in the valley below.

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Street Stories from Chennai

Georgetown, Chennai is one of the few pockets of the city that still bustles with an old world charm and character. These are some of the shots I took while walking in and around the streets and the flower markets in this atmospheric corner of the South Indian metropolis.

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Lunglei

Until I arrived in Lunglei, it was going to be a mere pit-stop on the way to more appealing locales like Saiha and Phawngpui. Its billing as the second largest urban conglomerate in Mizoram didn’t sound very enticing. But I was so dazzled by the views from the Tourist Lodge that I lingered on for many nights.

A marker for how enthusiastic I feel about a place is how early it makes me wake up in the morning. In Lunglei, I woke up at the crack of dawn every day and went up to the terrace with a camera, a kindle and a cup of tea and spent hours sitting on its slat-roofed slopes watching the golden light fall on the city. On certain mornings, banks of clouds would envelop the building generating a momentary illusion that you were suspended in the air. It was both beautiful and scary because when the fog began thinning, little holes in its layers revealed not just the azure sky around but also the steep fall into the misty hills hundreds of feet below.

There wasn’t an awful lot to do here but stroll around in peace and take in the views from the vantage points that offered them. Of the city’s urban cluster capping the cliffs to the south, some of the most phenomenal glimpses could be had from the path down to the road below. Here, stony platforms at the edge of a wide, cobbled footpath lined with flowering shrubs provide an unrivalled look at the sunset. It was a languid place for the people who lived in the vicinity to sit and converse.

Of the wilder, timbered hills beyond, perhaps the best view could be had from the Baptist Church just a few meters below the Lodge. Here, steep curvy slopes led down to the tin-roofed dwellings on the hillsides. Here, I spent an entire afternoon speaking to an inquisitive pastor who wished to know my views on everything from politics to sport to the movie business while remaining stubbornly noncommittal on his opinions on the same. Tourists seldom made their way to Lunglei, he said, let alone linger long enough to walk down to the church. He himself had never been out of Mizoram in his entire life and had no desire to go anywhere. Since God willed him to be in Lunglei, he was perfectly content with his life there. He was disappointed to know that I was a bit of a godless person but since he had found me labouring under his roof (taking pictures of the hills i.e.), he felt I would find Him soon enough.

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I wish more of the guests at the Lodge were as amenable to conversations as the pastor. The ladies at the reception were friendly enough but kept a studied distance at being probed further than a request for a cup of tea or a glass of water. It wasn’t a particularly busy place either with a majority of the rooms going unsold. Much of the clientele was from other parts of India and one particular gentleman, who appeared to be a regular visitor going by the chummy way he behaved with the cook, just spread himself out in the lobby and watched Hindi serials on TV all evening.

At breakfast and dinnertime, I was usually the sole person eating in the hall. The only other person I had for company one morning was Chandru, a doctor from Chennai who was working in remote areas of Mizoram for an NGO. He too was surprised to find me traveling in a far-flung district like Lunglei and was taken aback to hear that I had been enjoying my journey so far. He didn’t find anything particularly beautiful about the region and urged me to visit Shimla and Darjeeling if I wanted to see beautiful places.

Work in Mizoram wasn’t as difficult as some other parts of India, he said, as people had a better regard for hygiene, discipline and cleanliness. It only became a problem in the more malarial towns bordering Bangladesh like Tlabung. He felt the bigger challenge was getting through to the people because while they were friendly, they were reticent to trust outsiders. He often had to count on help from the religious fraternity to gain trust in remote villages.

His biggest issue with living in Mizoram was food. Hankering for curd rice might sound like an attempt to stereotype a Tamilian but for Chandru, the fear of its deprivation was very much real. Often, he had to wander for days on end in the rural hinterland far from a city like Aizawl,  the only place in Mizoram where he could find food to his liking. His troubles were compounded significantly by the fact that he was a strict vegetarian as well. The Indian restaurants in Aizawl and Lunglei, of whom he had an encyclopaedic knowledge having trawled their alleys far and wide in search of edible herbivorous meals, served him well but beyond, he had to starve for hours until he reached a government tourist lodge to find himself food that he trusted to be meat-free. He was suspicious of anything he was served at the homes he visited in the rural areas partly because of the language gap and largely because he was fearful he would be served meat either out of mistake or mischief.

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Apart from the slat-roofed terrace, sweeping vistas could be had from a machan in the Lodge premises. They weren’t entirely unobstructed by the foliage around but offered a higher lookout than the road below. One evening, as I was waiting for a sunset here, I was ambushed by a group of Mizo boys and girls from the city. It was a Saturday and they had come to hang out with snacks and drinks in tow. Mizoram had for long been a dry state but prohibition was repealed in 2014, a contentious decision that led to protests by the Church. So while wine shops had opened in bits and spurts, liquor consumption was still frowned upon and consumed clandestinely with like-minded folks.

While many in this particular group were cheerful and friendly with one of the boys even offering me a drink that I politely refused, two of them were inebriated beyond control and became quite rowdy after a few rounds of drinks.

“What are you doing in Mizoram?”, bawled one them while I was perched on the ledge trying to get an angle on the hills with my camera.

“Just traveling around”, I said.

“So you have no job or what?”, shouted the other guy.

“I do my job while traveling.”

“You work for government? Why you take pictures?”

“I’m just a tourist and I love taking pictures.”

“Why you come to Lunglei, huh?”

Realizing this was getting a bit turbulent, I put my camera in my rucksack and climbed down. Then the friendly guy who had offered a drink followed me down to apologize. But up there, I could hear the two guys calling after me in Mizo and laughing boisterously with the girls perhaps gloating about scaring away the non-local. The boy looked at me sheepishly and said, “They’re  good people. Just a little bit drunk.” I said I understood and moved to the road below where the people appeared to be friendlier.

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There, as I was shooting the golden light falling on an Indian Tortoiseshell, an old man in a white t-shirt stopped on the trail to watch me work. He wanted to know what I was doing in Mizoram as well and wondered if I worked for the National Geographic. I said I didn’t but because I wanted to deviate from my usual boring story of being a nobody who roams around, I told him I was working on a travelogue.

“Oh, so you work for magazine, huh?”, he said, smiling expectantly, as if he hoped that were the case.

“No, not a magazine,” I said, “ I’m working on a book which talks about the people and places I’ve seen.”

“Like a guidebook?”

“Yeah, like a guidebook”, I said. It was futile trying to explain a hypothetical idea that even I wasn’t entirely certain of.

“Good, good, very pleased to meet you”, he said with a wide smile, as if this bit of trivia made his day.

“So what have you seen in Lunglei so far?”

I told him I had just been lingering around the tourist lodge for the last 3 days taking in the views.

“Why? You sick or what?”, he asked mockingly.

“No, I’m not sick.  I just like the views”, I said.

“So you didn’t go to the city?”

“Not yet.”

“Many good places to eat in the city. Come with me tomorrow. My name is Jimmy. I’ll take you. Tourist lodge food not good.”

So I went with Jimmy to the city the next morning. It would serve a dual purpose because I had to book a jeep out of Lunglei and I had no idea where to go. And, I thought Jimmy, being a local man, might be helpful in getting me one.

The moment we entered Lunglei city, all traffic and dust and noise swirling between perilously tall structures, I was happy to have stayed away for so long. Like many urban landscapes, it looked more presentable from a distance. After 10 days of peace and quiet in Hmuifang, Thenzawl and Zotlang (where the Lunglei Tourist Lodge was located), this was a bit of a shock.

Jimmy took me to the Ono Restaurant where he said the burgers were the best in all of Mizoram. So I ordered one and found to my profound displeasure that the meat in the burger was so raw that I couldn’t chew through it. I also ordered a coffee which looked like a cup of milk with a sprinkling of coffee powder. I told Jimmy that I could neither eat the burger nor drink the coffee to which he reacted with much amusement. He said he couldn’t do anything about the burger but got the woman at the bill counter to pour a ton of coffee powder into the milk. It had the effect of making it among the strongest coffees I’ve ever had but owing to the poor quality of the powder, not a particularly good one either.

I was still pretty hungry having had to abandon the burger, so Jimmy took me to Classic Restaurant, a place he alleged was the best in Lunglei. From the curtained windows of this top-floor restaurant, there was a pretty fine view of the vertiginous urbanscapes of Lunglei below. The restaurant was done up nicely with a few tables having draperies to give them privacy. I ordered some momos and while they were strictly okay, it was edible unlike the nightmare burger before.

My hope that Jimmy would aid me in finding a mode of transport out of Lunglei were quickly dashed as we blindly walked up and down the steep lanes of the city trying to find the MST bus stand. Jimmy hadn’t travelled anywhere in 8 years and this was as much a journey of discovery for him as it was for me. When we did eventually get to the bus stand, I was told that no buses were going to Lawngtlai. There began another long-winded search for the sumo stand which had jeeps going in the direction I wished to go. Jimmy went about this like an amateur forensic detective would, asking the cobbler in a corner for directions and then corroborating this information with a shop another block away and just to be perfectly sure, asking everyone at the teashop next door if they had any thoughts about what we had learned. Not all the details tallied and we walked the length and breadth of Lunglei in this eternal search.

Every once in a while, I would interject with my own ideas about how we ought to go about things. I would tell him, maybe we could just take a rickshaw or a taxi to where the place was since they would perhaps be more knowledgeable in these aspects. But he would quickly shoo it away saying that would be a colossal waste of money because he didn’t think they were trustworthy. I let him lead the way because his labyrinthine course gave me the sort of elongated tour of the city I wouldn’t have had otherwise. We walked up mighty steps, climbed down to markets, crossed high footbridges and stopped for cups of tea at myriad tea-houses.

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While we were meandering thus, Jimmy told me about his life. He lived alone in one of the tin-roofed houses around Serkhawn. His wife had passed away long ago and all his children and grandchildren lived in Bangalore and Delhi. They kept inviting him to live with them but he was too set in his ways and wouldn’t dream of leaving his idyllic life here. He spent his time reading magazines, watching TV and playing music. His governing concern at this stage in his life (he was a little over 60) was Baptist Christianity and I only had to needle him a little bit to extricate some very strong opinions against the Catholic Church. He was clearly well-read on the issue and a lot of his theological explications flew right over my head.

Finally, perhaps tiring of this routine, Jimmy sauntered to a policeman to make enquiries. The policeman whistled for a lanky young boy to take us to the main market circle where there were a line of shops with sumo counters selling tickets to everywhere in Mizoram. Here, Jimmy took money off my hands and haggled ferociously in Mizo with the lady at the counter. The boy sitting on a chair outside was watching this scene with much amusement and came up to me and said, “He wants to go for 50 rupees. That was the rate maybe 20 years ago.”

Jimmy’s protestations were to no avail as we had to pay the regular 2017 rate for the seat to Lawngtlai. After snatching the ticket off the lady’s hands, Jimmy stormed outside, shook his head and said, “Thieves, I tell you. All thieves! 200 rupees!” Jimmy then met some of his old acquaintances on the street and got so distracted with conversation that he wandered off with them disregarding me entirely. I walked back to the Lodge all alone in the crispy foggy air of the evening stopping at every turn to shoot Lunglei’s ethereal landscapes.

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The Road to Lunglei

The Mizo couple accompanying Rajesh had to return to Aizawl because of an emergency. One of their relatives had suffered a stroke and was on life support. They were terribly apologetic that they couldn’t drive Rajesh to Lunglei to inspect the petrol pump they owned. However, they did arrange for a taxi to take him to the junction in Thenzawl where share taxis plying to Lunglei from Aizawl stopped to pick up passengers and since we had broken bread the previous night as fellow outsiders in Mizoram, he allowed me to accompany him in the taxi.

We were dropped at a restaurant which appeared to be the de-facto hang out place for anyone looking for any mode of transport going anywhere. Here, looking at the row of big vehicles lined by the roadside, we were confident that we would find a seat in one of them. But alas, all of them were full and as they rumbled away, we were left stranded all alone.

We ate some noodles at the shop to bide our time. After an hour of protracted wait, Rajesh was getting nervy and tense. He went up to the lady at the counter asking for assistance in finding a vehicle to Lunglei but she just shooed him away with a flick of a hand like he was a cumbersome pest. Rajesh was infuriated at being dismissed so contemptuously. But he couldn’t take it out on the lady, so he came over to my table and began blurting a litany of racist abuses directed at the state of Mizoram and its people. The faces in the restaurant turned to look in our direction in consternation and the panic-meter in my head was going off the charts thinking of the repercussions of this outburst. The easiest way to get into trouble in a place you don’t belong is to vilify a people while you’re among them.

I asked Rajesh to shut the fuck up and went outside looking for anything that would take us to Lunglei. A taxi driver had been watching me flailing about from a distance and he came over to offer a ride for 2000 Rs. in his Alto. I thought it was a pretty sweet deal for an 80 km ride on some of the worst roads in the country. So I went up to Rajesh and told him we could get a move on because I had found a taxi to take us to Lunglei.

Rajesh reacted to my pragmatic move with fire and fury. He castigated me for getting into such a ludicrous deal without his consent as if I had filched his hard-earned cash out of his wallet. He was a family man, he said, and couldn’t afford luxuries like a private cab ride through the hills when he was on duty. Every rupee saved was a rupee that would put his son through college. We should be looking for the cheapest mode of transport that would help him finish his work and get back home in one piece, he bawled.

This angered me immensely and I stormed out of the restaurant with my rucksack to see if I could make the cab driver shave a few hundred rupees off the fare and get going. But the man appeared to have run away, possibly riled by Rajesh’s caustic attitude towards his generous offer. So I waited glumly by the roadside for any vehicle to arrive. At that moment, I didn’t care if it was a milk van, a truck or a school bus or a pony cart. All I wished to do was hit the road. It was then that the lady at the restaurant, perhaps stirred by the despondent look on my face, sent a little girl with a message.

The message was, “Wait 10 minutes. Bus is coming.” This was sweeter than honey to my ears. For a moment, I deliberated on delivering the good news to Rajesh who was morosely staring into space from the restaurant window. But recalling his disrespectful attitude from before, I chose not to.

The Mizoram State Transport doesn’t run an awful lot of buses in the state but there is one that goes from Aizawl to Lunglei early in the morning. On certain days, there is another that leaves Aizawl at 10 a.m. to reach Thenzawl by 1 p.m. And it was on this 1 p.m. bus that I found a seat by the window of the last row. As the bus moved, I saw a figure running behind banging vigorously at its hindside. It was Rajesh.

Rajesh took the only space vacant in the entire bus, a gap of a few inches between myself and an elderly Mizo woman sitting next to me. He had also bought a carton full of diminutive guava juice bottles for the road and handed me half a dozen of them as a friendly gesture of peace and harmony.

Over the course of the 3 hour journey, perhaps to overcompensate for his rude behaviour earlier, he battered me with questions about my life in Mumbai, my college days, my views on religion, food habits, family life, lack of a family life, marriage plans, career prospects, Salman Khan etc. I indulged him initially with questions of my own to keep the conversation going but soon, it became exhausting as his thirst for the knowledge of intimate details of my private life knew no bounds. But my disinterested monosyllabic replies only seemed to make him try harder at framing more probing questions. So I put earphones on to hint at my desire to end the conversation. But this measure too was to no avail as he plucked one of them out of my ears to find out what I was listening to. King Crimson’s Red was understandably incomprehensible to him and I had to spend an awful amount of time listening to his disapproval of my taste in music and his romantic ideas of what they should be. He whipped out his own playlist and made me listen to some of his favourite songs from the 90s, all of them overflowing with melancholic self-pity, like “Kitna Haseen Chehra”, “Jeeta Tha Jiske Liye”, “Bhari Barsaat Mein Pee Lene Do” etc. He insisted on singing passionately along with these songs drawing stares from the passengers around. At this point, I realised that to put up any fight would be futile. So I let him have his way and endured his shenanigans for the rest of the journey.

The final 10 km of the road before Lunglei had been decimated by the year’s monsoon and the resulting landslides. Work was on in full swing with labourers caked in the dirt of monstrous toil attempting to smoothen the bumps as well as they could. This was a torturous stretch where the road was less a road than a rocky, marshy gloop and seated on the last row of the bus, my spinal cord could feel every little inflection of the route twisting its tissues to the brink. There wasn’t an awful lot of headroom in the bus either, so every big bump on the trail meant a knock on the head. It’s a minor miracle that Rajesh and I survived it without any debilitating concussions.

Rajesh departed at a petrol pump on the way while I got off at the point where a steep road curved up to the Lunglei Tourist Lodge. It was strategically located on top of the highest hill in the vicinity and while the climb up was exhausting, the first thing I wanted to do when I reached the lodge was to drop my rucksacks in the lobby, take out my camera and click pictures because the views from here were so stunning that I had to pinch myself to see if I wasn’t dreaming.

It was 4 p.m. in the evening and to one side you had a cascade of green hills ornamented by low clouds and on the other, yellowing wisps of fog alternately revealing and obscuring the urban cityscape on the hills in the distance, a quintessentially Mizo landscape. I’ll let the pictures do the talking because no vocabulary (that I possess) can do justice to its beauty.

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Hmuifang

After getting my ILP extended for up to a month at the D.C. Office in Aizawl, a painful process that I’ve chosen not to recount, I began exploring more of Mizoram. The first spot on my way was the mountainous village of Hmuifang, 50 kms south of Aizawl with the thickly forested 1619m high Hmuifang mountain towering above it.

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The only place to stay nearby was the isolated and lonely Hmuifang Tourist Resort run by the Mizoram Government and situated on a deep green grassy knoll between the villages of Sumsuih and Hmuifang. Words like “idyllic” are bandied about in travel lit for places that don‘t deserve it but Hmuifang truly embodied idyll in the 3 nights I spent here. There was no network, no electricity for long stretches and no guests other than myself staying there. My room was populated with moths of all forms and sizes and was still recovering from a monsoon which had destroyed many of its electricity connections. But for a measly 600 Rs., it was spacious, well-appointed with a geyser and a balcony overlooking the foliage below and had a friendly caretaker who brought you a cup of tea whenever you wanted.

The resort had a long menu but the caretaker could only make a basic rice thali and an omelette because of the lack of clientele and the remote location. But during the day, bang opposite to the place, there was a small dhaba type joint run by an ex-army guy and his family where the options were considerably better. Here I attacked plates of chicken pulao, cheese omelette sandwiches, bai (a porky mizo salad with vegetables) and numerous cups of chai while chatting with the disarmingly friendly owner R, who would entertain me with tales of bravery from the front and vent about his regrets at not being able to serve his country anymore because of an injury he suffered in action.

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A cottage at the Hmuifang Tourist Resort

 

There wasn’t an awful lot to do in Hmuifang but walk to places and take in the views. The best sunsets were from a spot just 100 meters ahead of the resort where you climbed up to a clearing to get a front row seat to the galloping symphony of mountains cascading one on top of the other in the fading light. There are some sublime views to be had on the way to Hmuifang village of the high ridges surrounding the area and some impressive villages stacked up on top of the steep hills playing hide and seek with the clouds.

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The Hmuifang mountain at 1619 metres is the highest point in the area but my climb here was aborted by a burst of heavy rainfall that I was ill-equipped to handle. The trail, signposted in Mizo, winds up and above Hmuifang village beyond a school through thick forests and splendid scenery. The only people I saw on the way were a couple of kids (bunking school?) and a man shepherding his herd to graze in the knolls above. Again, splendid landscapes on the way.

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Most people don’t linger in Hmuifang nowadays because of its proximity to Aizawl and the somewhat dilapidated condition of the resort which was still trying to get its feet back up after suffering terribly during the monsoon fury. But it’s thoroughly worth spending at least a night or two because the Mizo landscapes you see from here are second to none and it’s a peaceful, less touristed alternative to a more visited spot like Reiek.

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Aizawl – A Sunday in the City

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No city shuts down as completely as Aizawl does on a Sunday. The shops are closed, the roads are empty, none of the restaurants (apart from the ones in the expensive hotels) are open and if you’re thinking of getting out of the city, you might have to do so in your own vehicle because all the buses and share-taxis stop plying as well.

V had gone off to church early in the morning and I had woken up with a hungry stomach. I found R and S, two travellers from Mumbai who were also staying in the same airbnb, ransacking the kitchen to find some edible food. Eventually we found a few eggs in an upper shelf which we broke open to make some omelettes. And then, there was nothing to do but make lots of tea, consume it for hours on end, sit in the balcony, take in the sweet mountain air and play with Moi, the friendly dog in the house. It was the perfect way to spend an Aizawl Sunday.

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Lazing in my room, dreaming bananas
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Moi, the house dog, taking in the views of the city

 

But by 3 in the afternoon, our stomachs began rumbling again and we went to one of the only two places in the city that we knew was open – the Magnolia Restaurant at the Regency Hotel. Here we ordered all the meaty mizo food they had and gorged on it – a platter of starters, roasted pork with mashed potatoes, spicy pork salad, smoked pork with a saucy soup and lots of rice to go with.

The city shuts down on Sunday not just because people want a holiday but also because they have to pray. So in lieu of busy traffic junctions, you have people congregating to sing gospels. Melodious chorals ring out from the churches all around the city filling the air with piousness. Even though all three of us were athiests at heart, it was difficult not be moved by this show of religiosity. Unlike the exceptionally well-dressed people on the streets, we looked like bums in our cut-price t-shirts and shorts but when we entered one of the Presbyterian Churches lining the market road to have a closer look at the choral singing, we were welcomed inside with happiness and warmth.

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After drowning in the Christian air of an Aizawl Sunday afternoon, there wasn’t an awful lot to do but go back to our refuge at Laipuitlang and take in the sunset views from the terrace. It was an utterly spectacular evening to watch the sun go down as big shafts of rays filtered through the clouds in the yellowing light cutting their way between the hills. As the day dimmed, the clouds assumed a kaleidoscope of colors, now golden, then tangerine and in the growing darkness, deep vermillion fluffs hanging above the hills. Faint echoes of chorals from the churches far down below wafted towards us with the gentle breeze and for a few moments, we envied everybody who lived in a setting as magical and beautiful as this.

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